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ASU professor named finalist for Governor’s Innovation Award

Ferran Garcia-Pichel recognized for work in restoring desert soil’s natural protective crusts

Ferran Garcia-Pichel

Ferran Garcia-Pichel, director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics, and his lab are being recognized for their work in restoring the desert soil’s natural protective crusts.

October 17, 2018

Arizona State University celebrates innovation every day. Once a year, the state of Arizona shines a light on those who do it best. This year, ASU researcher and Professor Ferran Garcia-Pichel and his lab have been named a finalist for Innovator of the Year, Academia for the Governor's Celebration of Innovation.

The other finalists are Laurence Hurley at the University of Arizona, and Yasin Silva and Deborah Hall of ASU's New College at the West campus. Silva and Hall are being recognized for their BullyBlocker app, which employs predictive models and identification tools through social media to detect cyberbullying.

The winner will be named at a gala awards event on Nov. 8 at the convention center in downtown Phoenix. The Governor’s Celebration of Innovation is held in partnership with the Arizona Technology Council and the Arizona Commerce Authority to encourage innovation and recognize Arizona’s leaders in technology and innovation.

Garcia-Pichel, a microbiology professor with ASU’s School of Life Sciences and director of the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics, and his lab are being recognized for their work in restoring the desert soil’s natural protective crusts through the use of what they call “microbial nurseries.”

Because particulate matter coming from exposed soil is a large contributor to air pollution in Arizona, particularly in Phoenix and Tucson, this technology could hold a great deal of importance to the Southwest’s deserts and the humans who inhabit them.

“This award is important because we put a significant amount of effort in the last five to six years — not just myself, but the group of students working with me. We are really excited about being able to do something of immediate potential; there has been a lot of potential stakeholder interest,” Garcia-Pichel said.

Garcia-Pichel’s lab was nominated for the award by Bert Jacobs, an ASU virology professor and the director of the School of Life Sciences. Jacobs believes that Garcia-Pichel’s work could lead to important applications, and it represents a good model for sustainable solutions.

“Ferran and his lab have been very active in translating their basic research on the microbiology of desert soils into innovative approaches for solving some of the local and global problems associated with human-mediated degradation,” said Jacobs, also a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy. 

Arid land soils, a common characteristic of Arizona’s desert, are prone to erosion and degradation, particularly when exposed to harmful human activities and variable weather conditions. The topsoil typically has a naturally occurring microbiome that protects the soil from erosion. When this portion of the crust is disrupted, it is left vulnerable to the elements, yielding fugitive dust.  

“There are natural and human disruptions (to the crusts),” Garcia-Pichel said. “Physical forces can cause significant damage, so of course, large-scale operations like cattle-ranching, agriculture, sprawl and human activities like driving and walking — those all tend to have a negative impact now. That isn’t to say those microbial communities don’t have natural enemies like fire, increased drought, climate warming — those are going to impact the communities as well.”

Garcia-Pichel’s lab is developing new technologies to restore this crust, exemplified by its microbial nurseries. Much like reforestation, these nurseries are growing microbiomes that can be planted in the soils.

“If they can scale up this approach in the next phase, it could mean a simple, natural and self-sustaining solution to the loss of soil and air quality in Arizona and many other impacted arid lands,” Jacobs said.

Developed in the last five years, these microbial nurseries were originally part of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense in an effort to implement sustainable practices for military facilities inhabiting Western arid-lands. Now, the engineering branch of the National Science Foundation is supporting the lab’s efforts to construct mobile microbial nurseries for the effective transport and application of the grown microbial communities through the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics at ASU. These mobile nursery facilities are being built in California and will be delivered to ASU shortly.

The novel technology involves taking remaining beneficial microbes from the soil and growing them in the nurseries. Upon ensuring that only local and naturally occurring microbes remain as to avoid disrupting the crust’s biodiversity, the microbial communities are returned to the soil.

“The idea is this: If we destroy the natural crust, they will come back naturally, but that takes a very long time. There are two problems here. One is continued destruction, and then in order for the microbes to recolonize, you have to bring microbes in from somewhere else. That is where we can intervene,” Garcia-Pichel added.

These communities, once returned to the soil, enhance plant growth by promoting soil fertility and bind to soil particles, anchoring them to the crust to reduce the release of airborne particles. To optimize the crust’s fitness and resilience, the microbes are also made “tougher” so that they can cope with the harsh environment that awaits them in the field.  

The first large scale trial of this technology will take place in New Mexico in spring 2019.

Garcia-Pichel believes this recognition is vital, especially in shedding light on his innovative strategies and in changing the public’s perception of what can be done.  

“Having local recognition for innovation is important to us. It makes us feel that our work is relevant,” he said. “Humans are creatures of habit, so when you are innovative, you may have to knock at the door recurrently because people tend to know just what they know. This recognition can be very important in reaching our long-term goals by giving us exposure.” 

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